- Historic Sites
Hollywood Cleans Up Its Act
The curious career of the Hays Office
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
The final push came from an unexpected source: the Catholic Church, which hitherto had lagged far behind the Protestants in lobbying against Hollywood: But the cavalier disregard for Lord and Quigley’s code evidently angered Catholic leaders, and they were able to give to the cleanup drive the ideological and organizational unity it always had lacked. In late summer, 1933, Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, the newly arrived Apostolic Delegate to the United States, announced: “Catholics are called by God, the Pope, the bishops and the priests to a unified and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema.” Shortly thereafter American bishops organized the National Legion of Decency, and asked Catholics to sign a pledge that read, in part, “I wish to join the Legion of Decency. … I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land.… I hereby promise to stay away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality. I promise further to secure as many members as possible for the Legion of Decency.” An estimated 7,000,000 to 9,000,000 people, among them many non-Catholics, signed the pledge. Movie attendance dropped significantly nationwide, and in Philadelphia, where the Cardinal had forbidden attendance at any film (reputedly because Warner Brothers had erected a particularly offensive billboard opposite his residence), box-office receipts fell some 40 per cent.
Nineteen thirty-three was a bad year for Hollywood. The effects of the Depression were being felt harder than ever; several studios were near bankruptcy or in receivership. The Legion campaign had not even reached its stride when the producers gave in. They agreed to eliminate the liberal studio committee and to levy a twenty-fivethousand-dollar fine for producing, distributing, or exhibiting any picture without the PCA’s seal of approval. The code was now law, with an enforcement machinery that was to hold up for thirty years.
The code is an exceedingly curious and—considering its power—littleknown document. Originally running some four thousand words (several amendments were added over the years), it was divided into two distinct parts. The first, “Particular Applications,” was essentially a new version of the Thirteen Points and the Dont’s and Be Carefuls. The difference was the exhaustive detail of the code. Where the Don’ts prohibited the use of only seven particular words, for example, the code listed no fewer than forty-three, including broad, cripes, fairy (in a vulgar sense), hot (applied to a woman), in your hat, nerts, and tomcat (applied to a man) . But the code treated more than risqué dialogue: “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer [sic] that low forms of sex relationships are the accepted or common thing. ” “In general, passion should be treated in such a manner as not to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.” “The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste or delicacy.” Contrary to popular belief, however, nowhere does the code say that when a man and woman are shown in bed together one of them must always have a foot on the floor.
What was truly new about the code, however, was its heavy theoretical emphasis; about twice as much space was allotted to philosophical exegesis as to the Particular Applications. The point was summarized in three general principles:
- 1. “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience will never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.
- 2. “Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- 3. “Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”
Quigley and Lord believed in the capacity of art to do moral damage, and their emphasis therefore was not simply on subject matter but on theme and message. The code repeats over and over, in various wordings, “That throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right .” Quigley and Lord, however, never cited their authority for what constituted “wrong-doing,” “correct standards of life,” “natural law,” or “moral” (the word and its derivatives appear twentysix times in the code); they confined themselves to referring blithely to “the law which is written in the hearts of all mankind.”